ISTANBUL (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Friday that Turkey, once vaunted by Washington as a model of Islamic democracy, was setting a poor example for the region in intimidating media, curtailing internet freedom and accusing academics of treason.
On a two-day visit to the NATO ally, part of the U.S.-led alliance against Islamic State in neighbouring Syria and Iraq, Biden said the strength of Turkey’s democracy had a direct impact on its ties with the United States.
Turkey is a vital partner for both Washington and Europe in efforts to combat Islamic State, end Syria’s civil war, and curb the flow of migrants and refugees. Opponents of the government have accused the West in the past of pulling its punches over the country’s human rights record as a result.
“The more Turkey succeeds, the stronger the message sent to the entire Middle East and parts of the world who are only beginning to grapple with the notion of freedom,” Biden said, flanked by members of Turkish civil society groups.
“But when the media are intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting, when internet freedom is curtailed and social media sites...are shut down and more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a petition, that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set,” he told reporters.
Turkey was cited by Washington as an example for the Middle East of a functioning Islamic democracy in the early years of then prime minister Tayyip Erdogan’s rule. More recently, reforms have faltered and Erdogan, now president, has demonstrated a more authoritarian style.
Last week, he denounced as “dark, nefarious and brutal” more than 1,000 signatories, including U.S. academic Noam Chomsky, of a declaration that criticised Turkish military action in the largely Kurdish southeast.
Security forces briefly detained 27 academics on accusations of terrorist propaganda. Dozens face investigation by their universities.
“ROBBED OF OPPORTUNITY”
Biden met members of the Turkish parliament from the ruling AK Party, the secularist opposition CHP and the pro-Kurdish HDP, largely to discuss the southeast.
Biden, who laid roses at the site of a suicide bombing blamed on Islamic State that killed 10 German tourists last week, will meet Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Saturday.
Talks are expected to focus on Syrian border security and the role of Syrian Kurdish fighters, backed by Washington in the campaign against Islamic State. Turkey fears their advances will fuel separatist sentiment among its own Kurds.
Turkish media reports said Biden also met the wife and son of jailed journalist Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper, arrested in November over the publication of footage purporting to show the state intelligence agency helping send weapons to Syria.
He also met prominent journalists fired over the past year following critical coverage of Erdogan and the government.
The government says journalists are held for promoting terrorism or for anti-state activities, not their journalism. It denies intimidating media bosses, many of whose parent companies hold lucrative government contracts in other areas of industry.
“If you do not have the ability to express your own opinion, to criticise policy, offer competing ideas without fear of intimidation or retribution, then your country is being robbed of opportunity,” Biden said.
Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph Boulton